The Last Frontier is America’s cabinet of oddities, a place where people who don’t quite fit in elsewhere often end up. Alaska’s tourist attractions can be a little off-kilter, too. Here are 10 unusually unusual sites that will put you in a 49th state of mind.
Glaciers are everywhere in Alaska, and the vast majority of them are shrinking rapidly. The Hubbard is growing, quickly enough so that it’s threatening to plow through a nearby airport.
The Hammer Museum
Every small town in Alaska seems to have a quirky curated collection of some sort, but Haines’s Hammer Museum is the platonic ideal—2000 variations of the same tool, including a two-story one out front.
Wedged into a distant corner abutting British Columbia, this tiny (population 87) town has a largely unmanned international border crossing, uses Canadian area codes, and accepts Canadian money in its two bars.
The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes
The largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century—30 times the size of Mount St. Helens in 1980—occurred in Alaska in 1912, and buried 40 square miles of lush forest beneath hundreds of feet of ash. The area is still a desolate wasteland, dotted with expired fumaroles.
Juneau Ice Caves
Just a few hours’ hike from the popular Mendenhall Glacier, these passages beneath the main attraction allow visitors to bask in the eerie blue glow of sunlight filtered through centuries-old ice.
Little Dimoede Island
Sarah Palin never said she could see Russia from her house—that was Tina Fey. Palin did say it was possible to see Russia from an island in Alaska, which is true—Little Diomede sits just over 2 miles from its sister isle Big Diomede, which lies across the International Date Line in Russian territory.
Famed as one of the most isolated towns in the world, Yakutat is surrounded by a hundred-mile buffer of protected U.S. and Canadian wilderness. This has not prevented it from becoming a mecca for bragging-rights surfers, who fly in to ride its chilly waves (wetsuit required, always).
Accessible on land only via a 2-mile long tunnel, this town’s architecture is dominated by two massive buildings constructed by the U.S. military during the Cold War. One is deserted and looks like the set for a post-apocalyptic movie; the other, 14 stories tall, houses almost all of Whittier’s 200 residents.
Alaska is filled with ghost towns, but none is spookier or more remote than this abandoned Aleutian military base, decommissioned in 1997, where one can wander through an abandoned McDonald’s or movie theater, or hunt the caribou whose numbers exploded when the government left town.
Long after the U.S. purchased Alaska’s half a million square miles in 1867, the Old Believers, a Russian Orthodox splinter sect, settled in this town where the church still has an onion dome and the residents speak both Russian and English.
Mark Adams is the author of Tip of the Iceberg: My 3,000-Mile Journey Around Wild Alaska, the Last Great American Frontier (out from Dutton May 15) and New York Times bestselling books Meet Me in Atlantis and Turn Right at Machu Picchu. A writer for many national magazines, including GQ, Men’s Journal, and New York, he lives near New York City with his wife and children.